[Originally published 1996 |
Updated here 1999.06.20
Now that you’ve ingested my stream-of-encomium to l’homme Graffin et Mauvaise Réligion (if you haven’t actually read it, do so this instant), time for a contrary opinion. Yes, from the same source. I am rarely driven by such a strong sense of ambivalence. I guess this goes to show that even a hoary old punk-rock band like Bad Religion can evoke thought-provoking contradictions.
BACKGROUND: The other day I was scouting Toronto’s disagreeable and tawdry record district for the coveted German import single "Punk-Rock Song," which apparently features Herr Graffin singing in actual German. Of course, I came up empty-handed. For those of you who haven’t heard it, "Punk-Rock Song" is an example of metapop (pop that talks about itself and/or other pop) that takes a decidedly apocalyptic tack:
Have you lived the experience? Have you witnessed the plague?
People making babies sometimes just to escape
In this land of competition, the compassion is gone, yet we ignore the needy and we keep pushing on...
This is just a punk-rock song, written for the people who can see something’s wrong.
Gosh, how cheery. By stunning coincidence, while getting the hell away from the disagreeable, tawdry record district, I passed by a pinball arcade that was blasting the Bad Religion opus "10 in 2010":
Parched, cracked mouths, empty swollen guts
Sun-baked pavement encroaches on us
Haves and have-nots together at last, brutally engaged in mortal combat...
What kind of God [sic] orchestrates such a thing?
Ten billion people all suffering
Truth is not an issue, just hungry mouths to feed
Forget what you want. Scrounge the things you need.
So, dear readers, after weeks of percolating thoughts, it was in the shadow of this entrenched apocalypsism that I came up with my hitlist of reservations about Bad Religion (really, about Greg). Yes, I’m painting with a wide brush here, but this is not an ad hominem attack, nor does it constitute destructive criticism. I’m working from a vantage point akin to Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – committed to the idea of Bad Religion, but concerned about creating a better Bad Religion. A Good Religion, almost.
Disrespect and modest hypocrisy. The intelligent, articulate, personable pseudoprofessorial father of two that is Graffin by day morphs not-entirely-unchillingly into a font of needless condescension and taunting by night.
Case in point: The water crisis. There are more than enough songs about the population explosion and imminent ecological catastrophe in the Mauvaise Réligion oeuvre, but the fact that Bad Religion plays to middle-class kids in First World countries doesn’t mean that parched concertgoers aren’t dying for a drink of water by the fifth song or earlier, a Damoclesian fact Graffin holds over their – our – heads. The Bad Religion mailing list included this posting:
At about an hour and fifteen minutes into the set, Greg started taunting those of us in the pit by loudly savoring his refreshing water. Having sweated a few pounds of precious minerals myself the water looked pretty damn appealing. Then he asked us if we wanted any. Of course the pit went ballistic begging and pleading for a sip. Then Greg called us pathetic. He said that we live in the most privileged country in the world, and here we were, a bunch of spoiled brats begging for a sip of water. And being that painfully thirsty, I realized how terrible it would be to be even more thirsty and not to have the power to do anything about it.
And I replied:
Total bullshit. At that point you had very little "power to do anything" about the fact that you’re "painfully thirsty." Water is a necessity of life for all human beings, whether they be Rwandan refugees or Bad Religion fans. If Greg smugly quashes his thirst via his own private water supply before your very eyes and has the temerity to call you pathetic for wanting the same, his values are gravely misplaced, and you’re wrong to idolize him.
Unduly strong words? Don’t think so. "The cool refreshing taste of mountain spring water slides down the throat," gushed Graffin during the April 24 Toronto show, "like a babbling brook in crisp winter." He then dissed the mosh pit as "Third World rabble" and rebuked the punters for daring to hanker after the "half a litre" (more like two litres) of water he held in a pitcher. Sure, he drank some and tossed the rest on the crowd (fat lot of good that did ’em), but come on, kiddo. People are only now starting to break the code of silence about the short- and long-term health risks of rock concerts (and no, I am not kidding):
Mountain, molehill, etc.? Nay. This is the biggest cliché in the book, but Greg and the lads would be nothing more than talented schmucks with day jobs were it not for their adoring fans. If a record deal is a record deal is a record deal (see the interview), then fine, but fans are not interchangeable, and fan defection is not impossible. (Where is REO Speedwagon today?) My proposed remedy is equally hidebound and self-evident: Knock off the sarc, you big strapping hunk o’ man, you.
Misplaced cynicism. I suspect Greg Graffin just does not fully realize the immensity of his gift for gesture and expression. I’ve done my time studying (as in trying to learn and documenting the structure of) various sign languages, and I have more than a passing familiarity with dance films, so believe me when I say Gr.Gr. is channeling some serious shit in every twitch and shout. And frown. And grin. And snarl. And pointed sidelong glance. And curled lip. And bared tooth. And flared nostril. This is a nuanced bodily masculinity that hamfisted Miss Henry Rollins couldn’t hold a barbell to – but I don’t want to start on that jag again.
The downside, however, is that Greg’s motile face and flailing limbs are a visual sound and fury signifying nothing. Or nothing that is apparent beyond a detached, haphazard snarkiness. The video for "A Walk" features this capacity for fierce yet ambiguous expression in loving detail as Greg’s face, its details heightened by the artifice of black-and-white, is seen in successive Avid digital mattes. As in the previous item, Greg turns from man to "punk rocker" once he walks onstage (or before a camera), but at age 31 and with his various real-world responsibilities, the cynical onstage patter and the smirks and fingerings ring hollow and pro forma, not to mention fake-o. Greg needs a modest reality check and a tightening of focus, or an addition thereof.
Just as an example, leading choreographers should start working with Greg right away. I can easily imagine combo spoken-word/dance/music pieces with the gravel-throated colossus as orator. (Stranger things have happened. David Bowie did a fine job in physical acting in The Elephant Man, a parallel that hits the mark more than it misses.) Greg would, of course, have to wear something fancier than a sweatshirt (Cf. "Stranger Than Fiction" video).
Miscellany. Generally execrable videos and poor typography. On that tip, while the lads are subtle enough to thank Friz Quadrata in occasional liner notes, the Bad Religion logotype (set in that font, designed by Vic Caruso for Visual Graphics Corp. in 1974 after the Ernst Friz original of 1965) is rudimentary. Oddly, the a and g in that font are its two most notable characters, but by writing the band’s name in uppercase those visual details are bypassed. After a decade and a half, a graphic updating is in order, but there are more graphic-design charlatans out there than random tics on Greg’s face. Careful.